Author's Note: So obviously I am way, way off canon now as we know what happened between Clay and Stella in the finale. But I am still committed to my little MTF universe, so this takes place sometime in the future after Clay and Emma are married.
I guess you could say this is a sequel to "Is This My Life?" But I look on it more as a continuation on that theme. I don't actually dislike Stella, and I'd like to see her happy.
Stella dug through her purse looking for her bottle of Excedrin Migraine. Asking her parents to look at houses with her was a huge mistake. Dry swallowing the pills, she did her best to ignore the bickering from the front seat of the car about the merits and drawbacks of the homes they already visited. Only one more to go.
When she invited her parents to join her, she thought they would have valuable insights into the quality of the various properties. Her father had made some legitimate observations on the condition of some of the places. Her mother, on the other hand, had not. If there had been a way to only bring her father along, Stella thought this entire process would have been more enjoyable, but there was no way Holly Baxter would let this outing happen without her.
Her father parked the car in front of the final home on their agenda and turned to Stella in the back seat. "Is this the place the realtor is meeting us?"
"Yes, this house isn't officially on the market yet. Joanne was able to get me in to see it early."
Her mother glanced around at the other homes nearby. "It looks like a good neighborhood. Why didn't we look at any other houses around here?"
"Most of this area is out of my price range. But this house is a little dated inside, bringing the price down to the high end of what I can pay. An eighty-year-old woman was living here until recently. She moved in with her son."
At Stella's explanation, her father studied the exterior of the house more closely. "You'll want to look carefully at the upkeep then. Older folks sometimes let that slide."
"If that boyfriend of yours made up his mind about buying with you, then you could afford a house around here. One that isn't dated. I don't know why—"
"Mom, there's the realtor. Let's not keep her waiting." Stella opened the car door and exited before her mother could finish speaking. Discussing her commitment phobic boyfriend held no interest for her right now.
Meeting Stella at the front walk, the realtor pulled out the key to the front door. "Hi, Stella. Good to see you. We got in on this one so early, they haven't even put out the lockbox for the key. I went by the office and picked it up."
"Hi, Joanne. Good to see you too. We visited a few open houses earlier, but I didn't love any of the places. Thanks for getting me in early on this one." Stella gestured to her parents, walking up behind her. "These are my parents, Holly and Brett."
"Nice to meet you both." Joanne stepped forward and shook the Baxters' hands. "I think you both, and Stella, will like this house."
"Stella tells us an older woman lived here and the inside is a bit dated." Holly frowned as she scrutinized the landscaping around the front of the house. "The plantings are in very good shape though. Did she pay someone to do the work?"
Joanne smiled as she gestured to the flowering bushes. "They do look lovely, don't they? I understand the owner was a dedicated gardener, and as she got older, she had the help of one of her younger neighbors with maintaining everything."
Stella's mother nodded and glanced at her daughter. "Good neighbors are important."
"Very true." The realtor started up the walk. "The neighbors here are wonderful, I understand. There's a mix of young families, more established ones, and some older retirees. They all close off the street and have a block party in the fall."
Following her parents as they trailed after Joanne, Stella listened as her realtor talked up the merits of the property to them. The way they were acting, she could almost believe her parents were considering purchasing the house. Her father began examining the foundation while her mother and Joanne discussed the flowers and other small plants along the walk.
As Stella contemplated how quickly the flowers would be dead and the beautiful landscaping ruined under her inept care, she heard the gate in the wooden fence around the backyard next door open. A little girl with a head of blond curls came dashing out followed by a barking dog.
The child was around three or four years old. Stella couldn't always tell the ages of young children. The dog looked like a German Shepard, or maybe one of the other working dog breeds, a Malinois or something like that.
The dog caught the back of the little girl's shirt in its mouth and pulled her to a stop. At the same time a voice called from the backyard. "Lanie!"
"No, Cerb'us!" The little girl twisted around and pushed at the dog's nose to make it release her, but the animal continued to hold on.
A young woman appeared at the gate. "Alana Rose Spenser! Where do you think you're going?"
Stunned, Stella swallowed hard and looked closer at the child. In her mind, she pictured Clay Spenser with a bashful smile holding a baby with wispy blond curls. He had called her Lanie and later said the name was short for Alana Rose. This must be the same little girl. The age seemed right.
Stella studied the young woman, who used the last name Spenser when calling the youngster. Eight, or maybe nine years had gone by since Stella had last seen Jason's daughter, but she recognized Emma Hayes. She supposed the name was Emma Hayes Spenser now.
The headache that had begun to recede after taking the Excedrin, came pounding back. What were the odds of the house she was considering purchasing being next door to the home of Clay Spenser and his family? She glanced over quickly to see if her parents were aware of the drama currently playing out for their daughter, but both were still busy examining the foundation and landscaping of the property.
The little girl continued struggling to free herself from the dog. "Mommy, he no let go."
"Cerberus, aus." The dog released Lanie's shirt and went to Emma as she joined her daughter on the front lawn. "That's because Cerb knows you aren't allowed out of the backyard by yourself."
"I want see Daddy. You say Daddy coming."
"He'll be home soon, but you are not allowed out of the backyard alone. Do you understand?" Emma Spenser definitely had the mom voice down, thought Stella.
"Yes, Mommy." Hanging her head, Lanie dug the toe of her sparkly sneaker in the grass.
The little girl was the picture of dejection, and Stella wondered how Emma could stand firm in the face of it. The sorrow in Lanie's big blue eyes, obviously inherited from her father, reminded Stella of the wounded look in Clay's that day on the tarmac before he left for Mexico. If this were her child, she knew she would cave every single time.
"Good." Emma reached out and tousled her daughter's curls. "How about we go in and get a snack ready for Daddy? He'll be hungry when he gets home."
"Okay." Lanie lifted her head to meet her mother's gaze. "We give him cookies."
Emma held out a hand for her daughter to take. "Maybe something more filling than cookies."
"But Daddy like cookies." Lanie grasped her Emma's hand.
Chuckling, Emma turned to walk back into their yard. "He does, but he's been fighting bad guys, so I think he'll be hungry for more than cookies."
'Fighting bad guys,' Stella mused. Would she have been able to say that to any children they might have had and not show them how afraid she was the bad guys would hurt or kill their daddy? Emma looked so calm, but then she did know Clay was on his way home right this minute. Was she always this relaxed about it? Did growing up with a father who was a SEAL give her extra assurance? Or maybe Emma knew Clay was worth the worry. Stella sometimes wished she had realized that before she let her fear get the best of her.
"Look! Daddy truck. Daddy home!" Lanie's cry startled Stella out of her thoughts, and she focused again on mother and daughter in time to see Lanie drop Emma's hand and dart towards the driveway where a black pickup was pulling in.
The dog, which Stella now recognized as being from Bravo, barked and ran forward in time to cut Lanie off before she could dash on to the paved surface.
"Lanie!" Emma rushed after her daughter as well, her reaction time not anywhere near as fast.
Clay hopped out of the truck with a duffel bag over his shoulder. As he came around the front of the vehicle, Stella stepped back hoping to conceal herself behind a bush. The last thing she needed was for Clay to find her watching him and his family like a crazy stalker.
"Daddy!" Lanie threw herself at her father's legs.
Dropping his bag, Clay scooped Lanie up in his arms. The sharp pain Stella felt in her heart at the sight of Clay holding his little girl nearly overwhelmed her. Observing him with his daughter, who looked so much like him, brought back that longing for the life she might have lived.
Clay scolded Lanie for trying to run into the driveway when he drove in. Upset at her father's admonishing, she laid her head on his shoulder, her eyes wet with tears. "I sorry, Daddy."
Unlike Emma, Clay lost his stern expression in the face of his little girl's distress. "That's okay, baby. I just don't want you to get hit by a car if you're not careful." Giving her a squeeze, he kissed the top of Lanie's head.
Stella sighed internally at the picture Clay and his daughter made. The scene confirmed her long held suspicion that he would be a good father.
Finished comforting his daughter, Clay turned to Emma, standing by his side. The two smiled at each other, and Stella thought she could walk out from behind this bush and onto the center of their lawn and the pair wouldn't notice her.
"Hi, miss me?" Clay slid his free arm around Emma, pulling her closer.
"Mmm, maybe a little." Emma grinned, leaning in to him.
"Just a little?" Before she replied, he closed the remaining distance between them, pressing his lips to hers.
Stella could feel the heat from their kiss where she stood hiding behind the lilac bush. Clay always did know what he was doing in that department, she thought. Several more seconds went by, and they were still kissing. Didn't they realize this was a family neighborhood? Of course, they did; their daughter was right there.
As Stella continued to watch, Lanie lifted her head from Clay's shoulder and frowned at her parents. She rubbed her eye with her fist. "Daddy?" Emma and Clay continued their kiss. "Mommy?" Her little face scrunched up as she waited for either of her parents to answer.
Her patience finally ended. "Daddy! No more kissing!"
They broke off from the kiss, and the tender look Clay shared with Emma gave Stella a pang of envy.
Turning to Lanie, Clay grinned at her little pout. "No more kissing? Why?"
"I no like kisses."
"You don't like kisses? But what if we give you lots of them?" He began peppering one side of her face with kisses, while Emma stood on her tiptoes and did the same for the other side.
Lanie's high-pitched giggles rang out. "Kisses!"
Clay gave Lanie a small bounce in his arms, as he and Emma stopped kissing her. "Still don't like kisses?"
"Yes, kisses!" Lanie giggled again and hid her face against Clay's neck.
"That's what I thought."
Shaking her head, Emma squeezed Lanie's leg. "Okay you two, how about we go in and get something for Daddy to eat?"
"Sounds good to me."
"Not cookies, silly girl." Emma grabbed Clay's duffel and swung it over her shoulder.
Clay smiled at Emma as they began walking back towards the gate. "I like cookies."
"Yay, cookies!" Lanie cheered, and they all entered the backyard followed by Cerberus.
"Cookies aren't a healthy…" Emma's voice faded as they disappeared into the yard and the gate closed behind them.
Standing quietly, Stella considered what she had just observed, and she realized she wanted that life. Not a life with Clay exactly. She had her chance with him, and she let it go. But she could still build a life like that with someone else. Not Jeff. Her mother was right about him, as much as it irritated Stella to admit that.
Jeff might be a talented history professor, who motivated students and charmed fellow faculty members, but as a life partner he was a dud. He didn't want any more than what they already had. He was content with their relationship as it was, but she wanted more. She deserved more.
Decision made, she headed back to join her parents and let them know she wouldn't be buying this house. Whatever the condition of the interior of this place, living next door to Clay Spenser would make it difficult for Stella to move on with her life.
Then she would go home and tell Jeff they were through. Untangling the threads of their shared existence would be challenging, but she had become complacent with their status quo, letting her needs and desires slide. But if she wanted to build a new life and have the family she wanted, then she needed to let Jeff go and move in a new direction.